Gradient Conversations: Small shifts, big gains

Small shifts, big gains

Throughout her years as a math teacher, Laura Myers loved sharing her passion for the subject with students and watching them gain confidence when speaking about math.

But those weren’t the conversations with her middle schoolers that she enjoyed most.

“I didn’t want students to only talk to me about math,” Myers said. “Every human is multi-faceted. If they’re sitting in a math classroom, that’s not their full identity. You don’t only need to talk to them about math.”

Nora Hurab had a similar mindset during her time as a middle school science teacher. At the start of each school year, Hurab strived to make all students feel comfortable in her classroom and encouraged them to share their thoughts with her. She noticed how that openness to discuss topics outside of science led to more engaged and enriched learning experiences in science.

“Allowing students to evolve and shift in that environment is really important,” Hurab said. “Allowing them to reveal themselves to you in a way that feels comfortable and productive is a shift for some of our students. They realize, ‘Oh, I can say that to my teacher and, whatever I say, my teacher’s going to welcome that with open arms.’”

“Getting to know the whole student can really open the door to...thinking about each individual human sitting in my classroom.”

Myers and Hurab, colleagues at Gradient Learning, recently sat down for an enlightening conversation that focused on the “small shifts” that educators can make to help provide all students with the curiosity, skills, and sense of purpose they’ll need to succeed in life.

“What can be difficult sometimes is that when we talk about supporting the whole student, it can immediately start to feel really overwhelming,” said Hurab, who is a Leader Coach. “‘I’m one person. How can I possibly tend to so many needs of my students across not just their academics, but their social and emotional needs?’ But you can make small shifts that make it feel less overwhelming and result in some major shifts for yourself and your students.”

Myers, a Pedagogy Lead, said teachers often refer to their classrooms as a whole group of students rather than a room filled with individual students with unique needs.

“Getting to know the whole student can really open the door to breaking the mentality of ‘my students’ and thinking about each individual human sitting in my classroom,” Myers said.

After realizing her early teaching strategies in math were based on short-term success over long-term knowledge, Myers switched her focus. Rather than place all of the importance on the result of a math problem, Myers emphasized the problem-solving process and noticed how much more rewarding it was for her and her students.

“That rote memorization didn’t stick with them over time,” Myers said. “Adopting a problem-solving approach to mathematics was truly the best way to teach students because it allowed them to develop those lifelong skills. ‘You’re going to engage in a productive struggle, and I’m going to be here to support you, and you’re going to develop perseverance and self-awareness.’

“By just making that switch on how I taught, I was able to tend to the whole student and help them develop those non-academic skills.”

In their close work with educators across the country, Myers and Hurab said the common theme to a successful learning experience revolves around connections.

“Relationships have always been at the center of the classroom,” Hurab said. “The focus on the whole student really allows educators to leverage those relationships to reach the academic outcomes that are in front of them.”

This is the third in a series of Gradient Conversations. Watch our previous chats between Alexius Thomas and Justin Sinclair and Katie Chambers and Reem Semaan, and continue the conversation in your own community.